How Ford Pro, iRobot, and Mainspring Energy stay on the same page with suppliers
August 3, 2023
More manufacturing companies are looking at ways to tap into their supplier’s expertise. As a strategy, it makes a lot of sense: as product complexity continues to rise, companies grow more specialized. That means product and component expertise gets concentrated at each step in the value chain. So if you want to get the right input from people with the right expertise, strong supplier collaboration is no longer optional.
But what does tapping into supplier expertise actually look like in practice? To find out, CoLab hosted a panel of experts, who were kind enough to share some of their real world experience. The panelists were:
- Simon Robinson – Chief Engineer at Ford Pro Special Vehicles
- Kevin Walters – Senior Director of Hardware Engineering at Mainspring Energy
- Eric Burbank – Mechanical Engineering Manager, NPD at iRobot
- Taylor Young — Chief Strategy Officer at CoLab
For this article, we summarized 3 key takeaways from the panel. You’ll find plenty of direct quotes from our experts, so you can learn how they are improving supplier collaboration in their own words.
#1 Simplify CAD sharing to engage suppliers earlier in the design process
Your suppliers have valuable design expertise to offer. That’s not a secret. The problem is, for years it’s been prohibitively challenging to tap into that knowledge during the earliest stages of design.
An OnShape report asked engineering leaders where they were experiencing the most friction in the design collaboration process. “Collaborating with external suppliers” was the number one response, with almost half of respondents identifying it as their biggest source of friction, delays, and challenges.
But there’s good news. The way mechanical engineering teams collaborate on design is changing quickly. And as software advances, it’s becoming easier to share 3D CAD externally and communicate design intent clearly. As a result, longstanding barriers to effective supplier collaboration are becoming more solvable than ever.
Ford Pro works with 200+ converter partners to deliver a wide range of specialized vehicle solutions, all based on Ford Pro’s core vehicle designs (which are continuously changing and improving). Because these are highly complex automotive products that involve many different design stakeholders, collaboration is inherently challenging. Historically, that’s made it difficult to bring converters into the loop early on.
“Go back five years ago, converters wouldn't see any product until we had physical production running,” recalls Simon Robinson, Chief Engineer at Ford Pro Special Vehicles. “We're now starting to work with those converter partners through CoLab years before we are ready to make parts, years before we are ready to go into production.”
Since adopting CoLab in 2022, Ford Pro has been able to start sharing 3D CAD with converters. “We need to be working with them as a partnership, as early as possible — almost from an ideation perspective, before we've even drawn CAD in there,” Robinson notes. “But you can't transfer ideas. So we need to start with the first thing that's out there, and that is the 3D CAD.”
Likewise, Mainspring Energy has been using CoLab to share 3D CAD as a way of getting suppliers involved sooner. “When we're in concept design, we're engaging our suppliers at that point,” says Kevin Walters, Mainspring’s Senior Director of Hardware Engineering. That means they’re getting critical feedback from suppliers without needing to wait until drawings are ready.
“What CoLab lets us do is get the supplier feedback on the 3D CAD, before we've spent any time on 2D drawings,” Walters adds. “We're getting feedback on what works, what doesn't, what's more expensive, what's less expensive. Once we can get the engineers directionally set, then we can actually invest in detailing it out and getting the 2D drawings done.”
Taylor Young, CoLab’s Chief Strategy Officer, has seen the trend growing steadily over the past several years: “We’re seeing a lot of customers — not just our customers, but the whole industry — really leading the way in collaborating early and often with all partners in design, so that you can better leverage their expertise and come out with a better product.”
Having better ways to communicate and easily share CAD with suppliers is what makes true partnerships possible. Otherwise, when suppliers are pulled into the conversation too late, it can sour the relationship.
"If you're asking at the end, 'Hey, how can you build this in half the time or for half the cost?’ that's probably not going to be great," Young points out. "If you're asking it really early, when there's time to think outside the box, you might get a better answer."
It’s a point that Eric Burbank, Mechanical Engineering Manager, NPD at iRobot, agrees with.
“The time-based aspect of it is extremely critical,” emphasizes Burbank. “When you go to a supplier when you're towards your early production or pilot production builds and you're saying ‘Hey we need a solution for this now,’ you're not going to have a happy engagement. Nobody’s going to be happy, and you're not going to find the right solution either. The design space is too closed at that point.”
#2 The difference between real-time information sharing and regular meetings is bigger than you think
No matter when you bring suppliers into your design process, it’s not likely to be a “one and done” interaction.
Whether you’re evaluating suppliers in a sourcing process or engaging with established, long-term supplier partners — there’s always an element of back-and-forth communication. For certain products and supplier relationships, you might be exchanging feedback and revisions over the course of months or years.
That’s why it’s crucial to consider not only when you engage with suppliers, but also how you do so. Bringing suppliers into the design process nice and early is one thing. But if you don’t have a system in place to keep them up-to-date frequently as the design progresses, you’re still leaving significant value on the table.
When you only (or mainly) communicate with suppliers during periodic meetings or even email updates, you end up holding onto information instead of sharing it in real-time. In other words: it creates a built-in bottleneck that slows everything down. So instead of “discrete events where we have to wait for a review or wait to communicate things,” Walters believes strong supplier collaboration should be “very fluid.”
“As soon as the information's available, it's going out. And as soon as that feedback is available to come back in, it's coming in,” describes Walters. “We're spread across three continents and multiple time zones, with all of our external partners — so it’s keeping things constantly moving, while also having it so that I'm not plugged in every single minute. But when I do need to go in, I can see what's going on and see that the loops are getting closed.”
That continuous, real-time flow of information between design teams and organizations has also been hugely beneficial at Ford Pro.
“If you go back pre-Covid, there was a year where I went through 300 airports in a year,” Robinson recalls. “There were tens of thousands of miles spent in the car going to visit, with physical parts. Now it's all just going down the pipe, over the internet. We're able to iterate much faster.”
“It's about keeping that live flow of information going, in both directions,” continues Robinson. “It sounds really simple. You start out with the latest CAD data, you design to it, and you're good. Right? But what is the latest CAD data?... It is really, really complicated. And it is incredibly easy to get out of sync, in terms of: what is the latest, what is released? Are we looking at the right thing? What did we download today? Is it the same as what we downloaded yesterday?”
Converter partners rely on timely updates from the Ford Pro team to avoid any design surprises. Without proper communication, even minor changes can impact their partner’s production. “Integration into the PLM and getting in touch with the latest CAD data is really key,” Robinson emphasizes.
On the other hand, Ford Pro’s products are complex, with thousands of components. Just opening up access to PLM data — without the right context — could easily become overwhelming.
Robinson’s ideal solution allows the right people to access the right data at the right time: “Can we get to a world where a converter customer says, ‘I know there's two and a half thousand parts on this van, but I'm only interested in these three’ and have it so they get alerted when those three change? That's kind of the beauty of this. That is where I see this opening up in its entirety in the future.”
#3 Improve design outcomes by engaging peers outside of engineering
Engineering teams building complex products have to decide how to involve colleagues from other departments. In particular, the relationship between the design team and the supply chain team is critical if you want to make supplier collaboration a priority.
As Young explains: “If you make suppliers play ‘broken telephone’ — communicating everything between a supply chain person or procurement person who doesn't have all the context that you do — the supplier is perhaps going to get frustrated, or you're just going to get poor quality answers and decisions, or it's just going to be slow.”
“That leaves you with two options,” adds Young. “One is to really put in the effort and spend time to download that design intent and know-how into your supply chain, so that they understand the context and they can guide that process accordingly. Or, you can actually step into that process and speak directly with suppliers within that procurement process.”
At Mainspring Energy, teammates from supply chain and manufacturing are heavily involved in the engineering design process: “We have our internal supply chain team members embedded in the design team,” Walters comments. “They're pulling in our suppliers — and often multiple suppliers for one part, because sole sourcing is not something we want to get into — and CoLab portals is a great way to effectively manage that and keep the input nice and clean and organized. Then we're also engaging our internal manufacturing teams, so even production associates are getting into CoLab and giving DFA input.”
CoLab keeps all the relevant information centralized in one place, yet still gives Mainspring the flexibility to control exactly what any given collaborator can view or access. For example: the team can use CoLab portals to get quotes from two separate suppliers, without needing to duplicate the file and manage multiple email threads.
While the engineering team collaborates with suppliers on designs, at the end of the day, the supply chain team at Mainspring owns the relationship: “The relationship with the supplier is owned by our supply chain team. The engineers own the technical aspects of the design, but supply chain owns the commercial aspects and they're responsible for the overall relationship,” explains Walters. “But in order for this to be successful, it means really close collaboration between our supply chain team and our engineering team. And CoLab is a way that we can make sure that the commercial side sees what's going on with the design and everybody's really on the same page.”
Similarly, Eric Burbank leads an engineering team at iRobot that spends a significant amount of time working directly with suppliers: “On a daily basis, we're sharing engineering drawings, we're sharing CAD, we're sharing texts, we're sharing as much information as we can to our suppliers,” Burbank remarks.
“On a daily basis, we're sharing engineering drawings, we're sharing CAD, we're sharing texts, we're sharing as much information as we can to our suppliers.”
Eric’s team is actively looking at ways to make all of that information sharing more efficient: “Right now, we have a very manual process of sharing that information to our teams that will then interface directly with our suppliers,” Eric explains. “We work with a lot of companies and suppliers in APAC, and you lose days trying to get design intent and context shared in a manual fashion. It's actually quite astounding, the more that we see it.”
By implementing CoLab, Eric and his team will be able to engage colleagues in the supply chain more effectively in the design process: “That's one of the motivations we've had for getting CoLab obviously,” Eric says. “We have really capable people working in these roles and tackling this up until now. But I think having the ability to communicate with visuals and share design intent and get people that are not technical contributors aligned on a specific approach is really where we need to head.”
Improving supplier collaboration is a big and often ambiguous goal. But there’s tangible steps you can take to make it a reality. Ford Pro, iRobot and Mainspring are each making progress by tackling some of the common obstacles that make it hard. If you’re not sure where to start, consider prioritizing one of these 3 projects:F
- Make it easy to collaborate on CAD instead of making suppliers wait for drawings
- Shift from meeting based communication to real time by putting the right technology and culture expectations in place
- Equip the people that own your supplier relationships with the right tools and knowledge to effectively communicate design intent
For more information on how Ford Pro and Mainspring use CoLab, check out our case studies here.
“It's about keeping that live flow of information going, in both directions. It sounds really simple. You start out with the latest CAD data, you design to it, and you're good. Right? But what is the latest CAD data?... It is really, really complicated.”